a short story by Victoria S. Hardy
Joseph punched the wall, cracking the sheetrock, and screamed in frustration. How dare she? How dare that stupid bitch call his mother and lie? He threw himself on the bed and turned up the heavy metal song on his iPod. Yes, he touched the girl, but she was asking for it, sitting on the bus in a skirt with her legs open. Stupid slut should have kept her legs closed if she didn’t want someone touching her; it was an invitation. His mom wouldn’t see it that way, though, she never did. She never took his side; she just blamed him, always blaming him for everything.
His heart pounded in his chest and he threw the iPod against the wall, yanking the buds from his ears painfully. He jumped to his feet when he heard the key in the front door and met his mother as she stepped into the house, overloaded with bags of groceries. “Joe, get the rest of the groceries out of the car, please,” she said, carrying the load into the kitchen.
“No,” he said and slammed the front door.
Julian set the bags on the counter and sighed, as the television blared to life in the living room. With her purse still slung over her shoulder she went outside and retrieved the rest of the groceries. She began putting the goods away and dreaded the weekend - if she could work seven days a week, she’d do it.
She went to her bedroom and changed out of her uniform, leaving her purse and a bottle of Merlot on the bed. “Could you turn the TV down, Joe?” she asked as she began preparing dinner.
He ignored her.
She wanted a drink, but she didn’t drink in front of her son. She saved the wine for bedtime, locked in her room, and it seemed to help her sleep, although she wasn’t sure it was safe to sleep so soundly. She fashioned hamburger patties and was setting them in a pan when Joseph stepped into the kitchen, she felt her stomach tense as he tore open a bag of chips and jumped up to sit on the counter.
“I didn’t hurt that girl, Mom,” he said, chewing with his mouth open, despite all the times she had instructed him in the proper and polite manner.
“You sure scared her,” Julian said, her nerves grated by the loud crunching.
“She’s just being a whiny bitch.”
“Watch your language, Joe,” she said softly, turning on the heat under the pan and opening a can of beans. “Besides, she’s just eleven. You scared her.”
“She shouldn’t dress like that, how in the hell did I know she was only eleven?” He crunched, and she could see the partially chewed food in his mouth.
“You’re supposed to keep your hands to yourself.”
“I’ll put my hands where I want, it’s a free country.”
“It’s only free when you keep your hands to yourself, I talked her mother into not pressing charges,” she said, wondering why she did. “But you can’t ride that bus anymore, her mom said if she saw you on the bus again she’s calling the law.”
“Good, I hate riding that bus anyway, you need to get me a car.” He crunched and her nerves screamed for a drink.
“I’ve told you before I can’t afford another car, much less the insurance on a teenager.” She watched the burgers sizzle, but kept him in her peripheral vision.
“Other kids have a car, why do you want to treat me like a red-headed step kid?”
“Other kids have families with two incomes or have their own job to pay for a car. You’ll need to get a job, you’re old enough.”
“I’m not working at some fast food joint while some loser barks orders at me all day. That’s not going to happen! You could get another job and help me out.”
She sighed. She’d love to get another job, maybe two or three to avoid her son 24/7, but her son was her second and third job. “No, I can’t. I’ll just have to take you to school and pick you up until I can figure out something else. Or you could walk.”
“Or I could just drop out, problem solved. I’m not walking a mile and a half twice a day, you need to buy me a car.”
“You’re seventeen, Joe, it’s time to start acting like it.”
“Oh, and I know you’re so going to kick me out when I turn eighteen. I just know it.”
“No, I’m not,” she said. I might kick myself out, she thought.
“You think I can’t read the writing on the wall, Mom? I know you’re sick of me. Hell, I know you never loved me.”
Here we go, she thought and flipped the burgers. “Of course I love you, Joe.” Okay, if the truth were told she was at the end of her rope.
“No, you don’t. You haven’t loved me since Dad died.”
He was probably right, although she’d never admit it to anyone. She was just beginning to admit it to herself. He was her son and she loved him for that, but the last ten years had been hard, nearly impossibly hard, and she had no idea how she managed to make it day to day with the constant weight of stress and worry on her back.
“If you loved me you’d buy me a car. If you’d loved me you’d buy me the shoes I wanted for Christmas last year. If you loved me you wouldn’t be such a bitch all the time.” He dropped the bag of chips and jumped off the counter, crushing them into the floor.
She felt her heartbeat accelerate, took a deep breath, and stepped into the pantry for the broom. “There’s only so much money, Joe,” she said calmly. “I can’t afford three hundred dollar shoes.” She waited until he was done grinding the chips into the linoleum, and had stepped away, before she began cleaning the mess.
“No, there’s plenty of money, you’re just greedy.” He leaned against the door jam and watched her sweep the greasy crumbs into the dustpan.
She didn’t even try to explain mortgages, car payments, utilities, insurance and the realities of keeping a roof over their heads. Not to mention the loan she had to take out to pay the fines when he wrecked her last car. The car he had stolen, although she didn’t tell the police he had stolen it.
“You just want to keep me locked up here like a caged animal, no car, damned discount clothes, and no money.”
“I thought you said I wanted to kick you out,” she said, cautioning herself to stay calm and not talk back.
“You just want to ruin my life, make me as miserable as you are.”
She sighed and put the broom away. She stirred the beans, keeping her eye on him discretely. She didn’t know why he behaved the way he did, but he had been a difficult child since he was a toddler. She had taken him to doctors and they seemed to blame her - she was over-protective, not attentive enough, needed to spend more time with him, needed to be more sympathetic and she was depressed.
Hell yes, she was depressed! She felt like a caged animal.
And yes, she hadn’t really loved him since Jerry died.
The police ruled it an accident, they said the gun misfired when her husband was cleaning it, but she had her doubts. Although the police stared into her son’s tear-stained, blue eyes and saw only a little boy who had been traumatized by witnessing his father’s death, she saw something else. She still remembered the chill she felt when he crawled in bed with her the night of the funeral, hugged her tight, and said happily, “Now it’s just you and me, Mom.” She chastised herself for seeing such darkness in a seven-year-old boy, but try as she might she couldn’t push the feeling away, anymore than she could push away the fear.
She lowered the heat under the food and pulled the buns out of the breadbox, all the time aware of his eyes on her. He didn’t look at her like a son looks at a mother; he looked at her like a man views his possessions.
“You can’t keep me locked up like this all the time.” He said and moved from the door jam.
She scooted around him and pulled the condiments from the fridge. “You’re not locked up, Joe.” Groundings and restrictions had never worked with him anyway.
“I feel like I am. I don’t get anything I want. I’m just trapped all day, every day.” He sat down at the table.
Yeah, she thought, me too.
“I’m bored. I want to have fun, I’m sick of this serious shit all the time.”
She made his plate and set it on the table.
“I want some chips.”
“We don’t have anymore, I only bought the one bag,” she said and glanced at the trashcan.
“I can’t eat a burger without chips!” he yelled.
“Well, you shouldn’t have crushed them into the floor,” she said, and instantly regretted it.
His eyes changed and she knew she had done it.
“Fuck you!” he bellowed and flipped the table.
She dodged the table and watched his burger slide into the corner, leaving behind a deep red smear of ketchup on the floor.
“It’s your fault! It’s always your fault! You’re supposed to give your kid the things he needs and you should’ve bought more than one bag of chips! I’m freaking hungry!”
She was grateful for the upended table between them as he raged, a boundary between them. “I’ll get you another burger,” she said calmly.
“I said I can’t eat a burger without chips!” he yelled and kicked his chair into the wall.
She said nothing; anything she said right now would throw him deeper into the blind and terrifying rage.
“I hate you!” He kicked the chair a few more times until it was in pieces, stalked through the living room and slammed out the front door.
She sighed and looked around the kitchen, they were down to only one chair now. She righted the table and picked up the burger, wiping the ketchup off the floor. She gathered the pieces of the broken chair and dumped them in the trash outside the back door. She’d been so happy when she’d found the dining table at a thrift store just months earlier and in a few short months they went from five wooden chairs down to one. She should have known better than to bring anything nice into the house, when would she ever learn?
She ate a burger, put the rest of the food away, and cleaned up the kitchen. She made a mental note to go back to the thrift store in the morning and buy a couple more chairs; Joseph would take it as another sign that she didn’t love him if there was only one chair. She dreaded when he returned, his rages didn’t end as quickly as they began, and she knew the rest of weekend would be challenging.
She pulled the keys from the pocket of her jeans and unlocked her bedroom door. She slipped inside and reengaged the deadbolt. She’d had the door replaced with metal after he kicked in the last wooden one, sending her out the window to escape, and had the jam reinforced. Joseph was big and strong, even stronger when he was angry, and she hoped the new door made it through the weekend.
Julian settled on the bed and felt weary. She glanced at the mirror across the room and thought she looked more like sixty, than the forty she was. Her eyes were dark rimmed and hollow, her face was pale, and her body was too thin and bordering on skeletal. Ten years of stress and fear had worn her down to something she almost didn’t recognize.
She stopped taking him to doctors at eleven, somehow he always managed to con them and throw the blame on her. Of course, she didn’t always tell the doctors the truth, either; terrified of something she couldn’t quite name. Was she scared they’d call her a bad parent? Scared that they’d lock him away forever? She couldn’t identify the one fear out of all the others. She was afraid and had been since the night of Jerry’s funeral.
Somehow Joseph managed to avoid most punishment for his actions and she feared that she did protect him too much. She had lied for him, like when she found the neighbor’s missing cat mutilated and tacked onto a piece of wood in the shed. She said she hadn’t seen the cat and made sure to bury it when the neighbors weren’t home and wouldn’t have a chance to catch her. When she asked Joseph why he did it, he denied it at first and then said he just wanted to see what was inside. “I’m going to be a doctor one day,” he’d said, staring up at her with those big blue eyes.
Yes, Joseph was handsome; sometimes she thought he was unnaturally handsome, although she wasn’t sure what that meant. He was tall, lean, had a strong jaw, expressive blue eyes and full lips. He turned heads everywhere he went and when he smiled she could see the effect it had on people. They saw an angel come to earth, she thought, and shuddered, for all she saw was a demon that she had been battling for ten years.
When he was thirteen she began locking her bedroom door at night, but only after she woke up once to find him standing over her with a knife in his hand. He declared he must have been sleepwalking and her gasp upon waking was what drew him out of his slumber. That occurred just weeks after the little girl down the street, Tallie Covington, was found dead by the creek, mutilated and nailed to a tree.
She searched his room while he was at school looking for any evidence that he may have killed Tallie, she didn’t find anything, but in the back of her mind she was sure he did it. Then Rusty Brennings from three blocks over was found in the same terrible condition and she searched his room again. For months she feared the knock on the door, the police arriving to take him away, but it never happened.
She installed the deadbolt when he was fifteen, after she caught him in her room going through her underwear drawer. He said he was looking for a pair of missing socks, but she didn’t believe him. The next day she began locking herself in her room and locking her door when she left, even if she was just going to the bathroom.
She felt like a failure as a mother, and she supposed that is why she lied to the police and the doctors – what if it was all her fault? What if she hadn’t breast fed long enough or held him enough as a baby? What if she had never loved him? She’d read books on serial killers and it seemed the experts always blamed it on the mother, what if it was her fault? What if one simple lack of attention or affection in those early years had been enough to set him off course?
He stole her car when he was sixteen and was gone for a week. She didn’t report the car missing and when he wrecked it and the police brought him home she said he’d only been gone for a few hours and that he’d had permission. She had to pay the fines, of course, and the loan still wasn’t paid off.
While he was gone that week, two prostitutes and one run-a-way in the next town were found dead; their flesh peeled back and tacked on some piece of wood.
When he came home he was older, harder somehow. He kicked in her door a couple weeks later. She went out the window like a kid on a sled and knew whatever met her on the ground outside was not as bad as what was awaiting her inside the house. She hit the rocks hard, and scraped her arms, belly and legs, but luckily didn’t break any bones. She’d had a plan and had hid some money behind the shed in a mason jar buried under some debris.
She ran, dug that jar up, and ran some more.
She rented a cheap motel room and waited a few days, eating cheap take out food and washing her clothes in the sink. She’d already stored an extra uniform at work and on Monday afternoon she went home as though nothing had happened. The house was trashed. The sentimental things that were left she stored at the corner self-storage unit, she didn’t need a big one, and it only cost ten bucks a month.
She bought the gun the next week.
She had to put it on lay-a-way at a pawnshop and fill out all the necessary paperwork, and when she finally paid off her purchase she stepped out of the iron clad store with tears streaming down her cheeks. She ran into the alley and sobbed.
She stood up, feeling older than her forty years and stretched. She wanted a shower, but was afraid to leave her room. She reached under the bed and pulled out a large bowl, a washcloth, and a gallon of water. She stripped and tried to wash the day’s grease, sweat, and the smell of food from her skin with a cup of water and soap. She allowed more water to rinse. She dressed in jeans, boots and a dark shirt and poured the waste out of the window. She stepped into the closet, grabbed some coffee and a small machine, and while the coffee dripped she brushed her hair.
The brush slid through her greasy locks and she couldn’t help remembering the Perkins’ Pomeranian, the dog with the beautiful hair, Sunny. A pampered, sweet dog owned by the elderly couple down the street. It disappeared on the day Joseph was too sick to go to school. She tried to get the day off, she’d seen the puke in the toilet, and she’d listened to him groan. She shook her head and pulled her hair firmly into a ponytail.
She found the dog in Joseph’s closet, cut nearly in two and tacked on a piece of wood, and she lied again.
She reached under a pile of winter sweaters and pulled the gun free.
He’ll be back, she thought and sipped black coffee.
She discovered the piece of thick plywood in the shed Monday morning. She had just stepped inside to retrieve some birdfeed and nearly wet her pants when the saw it leaning in the corner. She stood beside it and realized it was a perfect fit. Her heart pounded, but no tears came.
Julian turned on the TV, muted the sound, and waited.
She felt him coming before she heard him, the ground under her feet vibrated for several moments and then the ceiling fans rattled.
The front door opened.
She sat up straighter and set her coffee down.
“Mom!” he bellowed.
She unlocked the safety.
“We have to talk, Mom!” He kicked the door.
She didn’t know what would make him madder, if she spoke or if she didn’t.
He kicked the door again.
She couldn’t speak. She tried, but only a squeak came out.
He hit the door harder, higher, she suspected with his shoulder, and bits of sheetrock fell from the ceiling. He hit it again and the wall splintered outside of the new reinforcement.
She lifted the gun.
With the next hit the door fell open and he stumbled into the room. “Fuck it, Mom, why do you have to be such a bitch? I just want to talk to you.” He pulled a knife from his back pocket.
She fired and he fell. She saw the stain on his chest and watched it grow. She stood slowly, the gun still poised. “Tallie and Rusty? Did you do it?” she demanded.
He tried to lean up on his elbow, but couldn’t. He lay back and smiled. “Of course.”
She watched his eyes, they seemed to darken, no longer blue but almost purple, and his pupils grew longer.
“The run-a-way and the prostitutes?”
“Yes,” he laughed, smiled, and coughed up blood.
“Why?” she screamed, grabbing her hair and sobbing, the gun against her head.
“Because it’s what I do and you let me.” He laughed again, blood coloring his teeth and cheeks. “You knew and you let me do it.”
“No more,” she said softly and pulled the gun away from her head. “No more,” she whispered and fired.
She sat with him until she was sure he wasn’t breathing. And then she waited a little longer.
I’m just as guilty, she thought, as she picked up the phone. I’m just as guilty, she thought, as she dialed. “I killed my son. I’m on the front porch, my arms are above my head, and I’m unarmed,” she said to the dispatcher and set the phone beside the gun on the kitchen table. I’m just as guilty, she thought, as she saw the flashing lights pull in front of her house.
Julian raised her arms in surrender.